The Guardians of the Galaxy are back for another adventure. Except this time, they’re not saving the galaxy from the threat of a Kree renegade wielding an Infinity Stone, or a godlike Celestial, or a genocidal purple alien with some bold plans to combat overpopulation issues. No, this time, the Guardians are here to save Christmas. And the only way to do that involves kidnapping Kevin Bacon.
This is the delightfully absurd premise behind The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which premiered on Disney+ on Friday. With the glaring exception of Gamora, the entire Guardians gang returns for the occasion, along with the addition of Cosmo the Spacedog (voiced by Maria Bakalova) and a version of Groot who is now alarmingly swole. Written and directed by James Gunn, the 42-minute TV special marks the first time the MCU’s motliest crew has appeared together under Gunn’s direction since 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. (Since then, Gunn was fired and rehired by Marvel Studios; during his exile from Marvel, he began his work at DC Films, and last month he was named co-chair and co-CEO of DC Studios, making him responsible for guiding the DCEU into a new era.) It’s also the last time the Guardians will appear on screen before Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which will serve as the conclusion to Gunn’s Guardians trilogy when it’s released in May 2023.
The holiday special was filmed concurrently with Vol. 3, and while it’s anyone’s guess as to what the future holds for the Guardians after that, the special provided an additional opportunity for Gunn and the rest of the Guardians team to have some fun before concluding the trilogy’s arc. “Vol. 3 is actually a pretty emotional movie, it’s heavy in a lot of ways,” Gunn tells The Ringer. “We still have all of the fun of the Guardians, but with a serious story. And just making a film is a little more painstaking—you gotta get all the shots exactly right. Whereas [the holiday special], to us, was a blast. It was almost like our days off. Every few days we would shoot Vol. 3, and then every few days we’d shoot this. It was a lot of fun to shoot and make in general. It’s just so goofy and so not serious, it made the stakes much lower when we were doing it.”
Although the TV special’s reveal that Mantis and Peter Quill are related comes as something of a shock, it doesn’t feature any Earth-shattering developments that will change the entire course of Vol. 3 or the MCU at large. Instead, it offers a light-hearted, low-stakes side quest that features some potentially crucial character and relationship developments, while also helping to make the case for Marvel’s new streaming format.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is just the second entry in Marvel Studios’ Special Presentations series, following the release of Werewolf by Night in October. In early 2021, Marvel made the transition to producing TV at the start of Phase 4 with WandaVision, and these Special Presentations represent the studio’s latest attempt to diversify its programming as it releases content faster than ever. As self-contained stories that have run between 40 and 53 minutes, they’re like souped-up versions of Marvel One-Shots, a series of short films that were released from 2011 to 2014 as bonus features for MCU movies and allowed filmmakers to both fill in narrative gaps and experiment with characters and concepts. The Special Presentations now provide an even bigger canvas for new characters and ideas to be introduced to the MCU, as well as the chance to focus on otherwise secondary characters, while not necessarily having to worry about the same narrative and financial stakes that come with big-budget theatrical releases or six-to-nine-episode series.
In the Guardians Holiday Special, this all translates to the chance to watch Drax and Mantis return to Earth to visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, party, and most importantly, abduct Kevin Bacon in frightening fashion. “Drax the Destroyer and Mantis have been really background characters for quite a few movies now,” Gunn says. “Being able to give them an opportunity to take center stage, in all of their anarchic glory, was one of the things that excited me about telling this story. And we didn’t have the pressure of making a multi-hundred-million-dollar movie starring Drax and Mantis. We were able to do it in TV, where it’s contained.”
Before Drax and Mantis stole Kevin Bacon’s Christmas, Werewolf by Night teased the potential of the Special Presentations format when it landed on Disney+ ahead of Halloween. Directed by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, Werewolf by Night is an entertaining homage to the monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, one fittingly styled in black and white with an admirable commitment to the charming cheesiness of that film era. If it weren’t for the direct reference to the Avengers in its narrated introduction, it wouldn’t have been easy to tell that the TV special belonged in the MCU. It features and focuses entirely on new characters from lesser-known Marvel properties, like Gael García Bernal’s Jack Russell, who hails from the special’s 1970s namesake comics series. And while some of the characters and monsters who appear in the special may end up being important to the future of the MCU (especially as the debut of an all-new Blade approaches), Werewolf by Night works well as a stand-alone project, largely because it feels like such a stylistic departure from the Marvel norms.
Unlike Werewolf by Night, though, the Guardians Holiday Special doesn’t exist in what feels like its own corner of the MCU. Rather, it’s an extension of a story that’s more than a decade in the making, with the Guardians having previously appeared in a pair of stand-alone films, along with Infinity War and Endgame, plus a collective cameo in this year’s Thor: Love and Thunder. This context provided a unique opportunity for Gunn and Co. to create a self-contained story, while also laying down some narrative foundations for the next movie to build on.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we’re Trojan horsing into Guardians Vol. 3 by way of the Christmas special,” Gunn explains. “[Peter and Mantis’s] relationship, but also the fact that they bought Knowhere from the Collector—this is where they live, this is their headquarters. The fact that they have a telekinetic dog, who is a big part of the landscape of Knowhere; the way in which Nebula has taken on much more of a leadership role in the group; how Kraglin is a very important part of the team. We get to see all of these things in the Christmas special that then are sort of taken for granted by the time we get to Vol. 3, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time at the beginning of the movie explaining them.”
Marvel Studios has yet to officially announce any plans to develop more Special Presentations, and it isn’t clear whether additional projects would continue to be limited to movie-adjacent releases and holiday themes. But the Guardians Holiday Special and Werewolf by Night have both showcased the framework’s potential in different ways, and it may prove to be a promising narrative space in which filmmakers can enjoy extra creative freedom, and secondary characters can get a chance to shine without having an entire Disney+ series dedicated to them. The MCU’s Phase 5 is expected to kick off on February 17 with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but you never know; maybe we’ll get the surprise gift of another Special Presentation with Wong: A Love Story by Valentine’s Day.